I've Got a Need for... Something...
So, I gotta be honest here: I do not see why people like this movie. Top Gun is considered one of the classics of 1980s cinema; if you haven't seen it, if you don't like it, there's something wrong with you. Spoiler: I had only seen bits and pieces of Top Gun up until today, and I was never especially enamored with what I saw. I skipped it growing up, and didn't bother watching it in its entirety until I had to review it for this site (because it's sequel will be on Paramount+ soon). And yeah, wow, this movie blows.
I'm sure there are those of you out there that want to argue the point (thankfully I don't have a comment section on this site so I don't have to listen to it). I do get that this was a product of the era. It's a movie about Regan-era American exceptionalism, rah-rah patriotism, and the utter coolness of Tom Cruise. If you can buy into all that then I bet you might just enjoy this movie. Everyone else in the audience, especially anyone that didn't grow up watching this movie over and over again, probably won't find all the same charms to enjoy in Top Gun. Hell, I just sat through it and I struggle to list the number of actual charms this movie really has. Val Kilmer and Anthony Edwards. That's about it. If you have to like Top Gun to be a movie lover than, damn it, I just won't love movies anymore.
Although I know everyone should know this plot already, let's recap: Tom Cruise is Maverick, a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force considered among the best of the best. He, along with his co-pilot Goose (Anthony Edwards) head off to Top Gun School (not it's official name, but that's what everyone calls it) to train to be even better, the elite above everyone else. There is flashy but effective flying isn't appreciated by the instructors, even if they have to acknowledge he's probably the best damn pilot in the sky ("you're too good, Maverick" they say, spelling shit out for us as blatantly as possible). Even his other classmates, like Iceman (Val Kilmer), hate his guts. At the school Mav meets Charlie (Kelly McGillis), a civilian instructor at the school, and the two quickly fall in love (it's never said that this is against the rules but it's heavily implied).
Sadly, tragedy strikes when, during a routine training flight, Maverick's jet loses its engines, a flame out, and goes into a dead, flat spin. Maverick and Goose eject, but while Mav survives, Goose dies in the accident. This sends Mav spinning (some might even call it an emotional flat spin). He can't engage while flying, he can't focus, and he decides that he has to drop out of Top Gun. Eventually, though, after talking with his instructor, Viper (Tom Skerritt), Mav realizes he has to get back in a jet and fly once more (you know, for Goose). Then, during a rescue operation, Iceman gets in trouble, pursued by four Russian jets (although the movie never says "Russians", we all know). Maverick has to go in there and be Maverick, saving Iceman and winning the respect of everyone around him. He's the best of the best, damn it, and his country needs him!
Tom Cruise, during this era, made some very specific movies that all followed the same route: Top Gun, Days of Thunder, Cocktail. If you've seen one of them you've seen them all as they all have the same damn story: cocky guy is the best of the best, and he knows it, but it's only after a big setback that he earns the right to get back on the horse (whatever it may be) and truly prove he's the best of the best to everyone ever. These movies weren't really great; most were, in fact, pretty terrible. They all lived and died on Tom Cruise's performance, though, because he was the real draw. Him and his smile and his cocky swagger. Truly, no one could play cocky douche that everyone loves quite the way Tom Cruise could.
While there are other performances I liked better in this movie, Cruise has to be credited for actually making this whole damn thing work at all. This film has such an awful, poorly written script. The characters spout out what they're thinking, underlining every point of the movie with overt, awful dialogue, all because the writers didn't expect the audience to be able to understand the characters, or the events in the movie, without broadly telling us everything. Out of the mouths of most of the characters this dialogue is trash (Charlie professing her love to Maverick after literally one date is beyond cringe-inducing), but Tom Cruise can sell all of the trash dialogue he's given and, somehow, it doesn't sound bad. The movie he's in is better than everything else going on around him, like he has this reality distortion field. It just works.
Beyond Cruise, though, the two best performers are Kilmer and Edwards. Kilmer, naturally, goes into the script to chew all the scenery. He's the kind of actor that would lovingly taste every line of dialogue and try to find a way to make it both amazingly campy and yet gloriously awesome (seriously, go watch him as Doc Holliday in Tombstone to see a master class in scenery chewing). Edwards, meanwhile, buys into the camp dialogue and realizes he's in a terrible movie, so he has fun goofing off. In both cases the actors don't treat the material seriously so they're able to skate by, giving great performances despite the terrible script. No one else in the film is able to achieve this.
Going along with the bad script, cookie-cutter story, and terrible acting are action sequences that leave so much to be desired. Tony Scott is considered one of the biggest action directors of the era, cranking out movie after movie that made beaucoup bucks, but I gotta tell you: his directorial style sucked. He was the kind of director that bought in a quick cuts and lots of movement to cover for the fact that the actual action was bad. This movie needed long, continuous shots of fighter pilot action to really sell hat we were watching. Whether due to the director's own style or, if we're being charitable, inability to film those long shots in a cost-effective manner, Top Gun provides none of the continuous action needed.
The action in the movie (and by that I mean all the flying sequences, not the volleyball game, although that's poorly shot as well) is largely incoherent. Planes go swoosh through the sky, we cut to other parts of the sky to see other plans, and then suddenly a quick cut goes to show us something has happened, but there's no continuity to the shots. If it wasn't for the characters tell us something bad happened to a plane we wouldn't actually understand what we were seeing. I'm sure filming all these planes flying around took work; it couldn't have been an easy shoot. But, damn it, for an action movie I actually want my eyes to be able to understand the action and that never happens here. Not once.
On top of all that, we have to address the soundtrack. I know people absolutely love "Danger Zone" but damn is that song cheesy, especially when it's used in the context of the film. Hell, everything used in the movie is over-the-top cheese. You could probably hate-listen to the soundtrack and find enjoyment of it, but this is as so-bad-it's-bad 1980s soundtrack. Every scene is underscored three times with a cheese-ball son that does absolutely nothing to actually get you into the vibe of the movie. It's broad and over-the-top. Like everything else in this movie, it's just bad.
The best I can think is that to enjoy Top Gun you had to grow up when it was in theaters. You had to be part of the Regan era so you could understand the vibe of this movie, get into it's terrible 1980s beats. I grew up in that time but I skipped the movie and, if I was going to find enjoyment of it I would have had to have watched it back then. Being charitable, I missed my chance to understand why Top Gun is good. I'm not charitable and I just think everyone else is wrong: Top Gun is a bad movie and I desperately hope I never have to watch it again.
I will have to sit through it's sequel at some point, though, and damn, I'm dreading that one even more now...